Governors won’t save the Republican Party

The GOP’s austerity experiments in purple states have soured for voters

February 14, 2014 7:30AM ET
Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett has a 36 percent approval rating, making him perhaps the nation’s most vulnerable governor in the 2014 elections.
Matt Rourke/AP

Last year the Republican National Committee conducted an official autopsy after the defeat of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. It came to the somewhat comfortable conclusion that the party’s biggest problem was its image. “Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes,” it wrote, while “many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.” The solution touted by the RNC? Practical Republican governors — “America’s reformers in chief” — who would save a party dominated by right-wing crazies in Washington.

According to the RNC, such Republican governors are successful because they “deliver on conservative promises of reducing the size of government while making people’s lives better.” But this lesson — that business-minded conservatives can overcome the ideological divide — is not quite reflected in reality. In Democratic-leaning but Republican-governed states, government got smaller, and some people’s lives got appreciably worse: Slashed education budgets prompted a widespread outcry in Pennsylvania, and anti-union laws polarized voters in Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan. Indeed, the purple-state governors elected during the 2010 tea party surge — Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, Florida’s Rick Scott, Maine’s Paul LePage, Michigan’s Rick Snyder and Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett — are among those most likely to face defeat in 2014.

This indicates that the Republican Party’s problems run deeper than Sen. Ted Cruz’s filibuster or Rep. Michele Bachmann’s contention that “The Lion King” might be gay-rights propaganda. People subjected to the small-government austerity at the heart of the contemporary conservative consensus sometimes simply do not like it.

The Corbett case study

Pennsylvania’s Corbett, with a 36 percent approval rating that makes him perhaps the nation’s most vulnerable governor, provides an illuminating case study.

It may be tempting to believe that it was his comparison of gay marriage to incest that sank his popularity into the gutter. Or, for that matter, his recommendation to women who, under a now tabled bill, would have been subjected to a transvaginal ultrasound before having an abortion to “just close your eyes,” his contention that unemployment was high in part because too many workers could not pass a drug test and, during his own binders-full-of-women moment, his inability to find a single Latino to work in his administration.

But Corbett suffers from more than demographic hurdles or a communication fail. In a Dec. 18 poll, 42 percent of those surveyed disapproved of how he is handling women’s issues, but a whopping 64 percent disapproved of how he is handling government spending.

Over the last three years, Pennsylvania has become a laboratory for conservative fiscal policy.

Swept into office with the 2010 tea party surge, Corbett tracks the trajectory of conservatism during the Obama era. On the campaign trail, he quickly moved to shore up his party’s right wing in the face of a tea party challenger, signing an anti-tax pledge crafted by Grover Norquist. He claimed a no-new-taxes mandate and, until the passage of a recent transportation funding bill, he ruled by it. He has slashed funding to programs for disabled and homeless people and refused to impose a severance tax on natural gas amid a drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale. Most of all, voters are rebelling against his deep cuts to K–12 schools, which has fomented one of the nation’s most dire crises in public education.

In Philadelphia, students contend with overcrowded classes, a skeleton crew of nurses and counselors, shuttered libraries, dirty and moldy buildings, violent confrontations, college applications completed with little assistance and anemic music and arts. In September a sixth-grade girl with asthma died after returning home from school, where she had fallen sick. No nurse had been on duty.

This year the city’s public school district, which saw 24 schools shuttered last year, opened with nearly 7,000 fewer employees than at its 2009 peak and must nonetheless prepare students for standardized tests with ever higher stakes.

Big Government is a useful bogeyman right up until the moment you lose your slice of it.

Today Corbett offers a cautionary tale for a Republican Party dedicated, as Norquist famously declared, to a government shrunk “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” His unpopularity has attracted a crowded field of eight Democrats vying for the chance to defeat him. Boosting education funding is their single most popular talking point.

Governors on the edge

This year campaigns in Republican-governed swing states will center more on competing economic philosophies than any culture-war divide. (The latter would only play to Democrats’ advantage, anyway.) Democrats, after decades at the corporate center embraced by Bill Clinton, are now undergoing a revival of economic populism: They are painting their opponents not only as socially retrograde Neanderthals but also as protectors of the rich at the expense of the poor. In many of these states, Democratic challengers will make a call for a minimum-wage hike a centerpiece of their campaigns.

Wisconsin’s Walker, the biggest celebrity from the class of 2010, is beloved by national conservatives for sharply curbing public employee unions and fighting off a spirited recall attempt. Yet polls give him just a razor-thin lead over his opponent. Walker may ultimately win re-election, but the polls, showing an electorate stuck at a nearly even divide, paint a bigger picture.

In Michigan, Snyder has sought the middle ground on some issues, winning just enough Republican votes to expand Medicaid. But his signing of a law turning Michigan into a right-to-work state and his guidance of Detroit into bankruptcy has energized Democrats and organized labor. According to The Detroit News, his Democratic opponent “has signaled he will use Snyder’s signing of the right-to-work law and the plight of Detroit pensioners to paint the governor as a friend of big banks and unconcerned about working-class people.”

The shift of the party base to the right puts Republican swing-state governors in a difficult spot. After Ohio’s Kasich broke ranks and decided to expand Medicaid under “Obamacare,” he drew a primary challenge from tea party activist Ted Stevenot. It is unlikely that Stevenot, a relative unknown, will take off. But Kasich will face a tough fight in the general election.

In Florida, Scott is polling just behind former Gov. Charlie Crist, a former moderate Republican who in late 2012 became a Democrat. Crist says he will make Scott’s cuts to education a major point of contention.

Maine’s LePage is an outlier: The governor — who told the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” attempted to bar state employees from speaking to the state’s largest newspaper, reportedly contended that Obama “hates white people” and told parents not to send their children to public school — is far to the right of the average voter in a state famous for electing centrists from both parties. He can hope to win only if a Democrat once again splits the opposition vote with a popular independent candidate.

Paying for austerity

It may be that conservative governors have gotten in over their heads in swing states. At the very least, policies that the RNC hopes can create a stable majority have proved extremely divisive. Big Government, after all, is a useful bogeyman right up until the moment you lose your slice of it.

The 2014 elections are still many months away, and critical national issues that will impact state-level politics, from the Affordable Care Act’s continued rollout to the pace of the economic recovery, will continue to develop. It will also be no small task for Democrats, who have their own incumbent governors to defend, to demonstrate that Big Government can work (see “Obamacare”). Some of the tea party freshman class will no doubt be re-elected, and Republicans control the entirety of 23 state governments, while Democrats maintain full control of just 13. That won’t change this year. But the governors elected on the tea party tidal wave of 2010 are proof that imposing small government is not an automatically safe political strategy. Often, austerity reaches its political limits the very moment it is put into practice.

Daniel Denvir is a reporter at The Philadelphia City Paper. He is conducting an investigation of the Philadelphia schools crisis in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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